Airlines, MROs Move To Upgrade Maintenance IT

The majority of airlines surveyed by IATA and Aviation Week plan to replace or upgrade their MRO or ERP systems—with many moving away from highly customized solutions.

Ask an MRO manager if better IT would help, and the answer is always “yes.” Ask the same manager what are his or her top five priorities, and better IT seldom makes the list. Improved maintenance IT is always worthwhile, but it is rarely the most pressing goal.  

Maintenance is a very tough aviation function to automate, due to complexity, unpredictability, safety and regulation. And replacing entire MRO systems means cleaning old data and overhauling processes, which is agonizing for many MRO departments.

But new aircraft, data management and economic pressures continue to demand stronger IT systems. Reluctantly or not, MRO managers are changing IT systems, either partially or in major ways.     

Airlines Mostly Seek Upgrades

Aviation Week’s second MRO IT survey, conducted in cooperation with the International Air Transport Association (IATA), elicited 36 responses from the 520 airline technical staff approached, up modestly from 31 responses last year. About 20% plan to replace MRO or enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, compared with nearly 40% last year. More than half plan to upgrade their current systems, versus more than 60% in 2014. Some differences may be traced to changes already made, and the two samples are not strictly comparable. But the survey shows one strong similarity: Almost none of the carriers are standing pat.

Maintenance planning, mobile applications, maintenance execution and supply chain management are the top systems that airlines intend to enhance or replace (see graph, page MRO 13).     

Allan Bachan, a vice president at Oliver Wyman, sees definite interest in new solutions among airlines with old MRO software. “There is an emphasis on trying to go with packaged, single-source software, not custom development,” Bachan notes. “Traditionally, they put things together. Now they are trying to find a baseline solution that satisfies most needs, then buy auxiliaries for other needs.” Swiss AviationSoftware’s AMOS, TRAX Maintenance and Mxi’s Maintenix are among the popular baseline solutions for major fleets.

The three full-service U.S. major airlines still use combinations of the 35-year-old Sceptre, in-house programs, add-ons and patches. “They are window-shopping, perhaps more than window-shopping, calling in vendors to see what they have and asking for demonstrations,” Bachan says.  

SAKS Consulting Partner Sharhabeel Lone agrees: “Recently we have seen a concerted effort in the U.S. to replace core legacy systems, and there are some pilot projects ongoing.”

Until recently, financial stress has limited majors’ IT spending. In the U.S., the challenges of combining operations of newly merged airlines preoccupied management for several years. But now there are other reasons for hesitancy to update MRO software.

Older systems were driven by business needs, especially compliance and control of fairly predictable maintenance schedules. Now aircraft and engines are more reliable, and more maintenance can be done on condition. New software to optimize maintenance schedules for efficiency is thus desirable. But it can seem risky moving to a new package that may miss a process covered by the old patchwork. And MRO software changes can affect thousands of employees in a merged U.S. major, posing a huge cultural challenge.

Lone says Asian carriers are modernizing maintenance systems, but they face cultural challenges just as in other regions. One concern is always the cost of replacing legacy systems. “MROs in Asia, like the U.S., have invested in legacy systems. Many teams resist change and have difficulty adapting to IT for next-generation aircraft, as opposed to current fleets,” he says.

For more agile responses to change, look to low-cost carriers (LCC). Southwest Airlines adopted TRAX when it acquired AirTran Airways. Now it is just beginning a switch to Maintenix for a fleet that will soon exceed 700 aircraft.

EasyJet is sticking with another modern system, AMOS. “We will always keep an eye on the latest offerings from all system providers,” says Swaran Sidhu, head of fleet technical management. “But we have no immediate plans to replace our existing MRO system as long as it can meet the needs of our increasing fleet size.”

Even so, staying on AMOS does not mean standing still. EasyJet’s main MRO priorities at the moment are working with developers to enhance major aspects of its system to ensure it meets the carrier’s changing needs. “This system is subject to upgrades to enhance functionality from time to time,” Sidhu notes.

One key area of focus is on automation and electronic control of aircraft records. EasyJet also wants to make its MRO system as mobile as possible, reducing reliance on desktops and laptops and bringing the system to the aircraft.

For both majors and LCCs, changes in maintenance software are being driven by changes in aircraft, more sensors and better communication to the ground. One critical aim is capitalizing on better data from the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 and thus reducing labor-intensive inspections.

Aviation Week’s new IT survey shows the strongest interest is in improving maintenance planning, with nearly three-quarters of respondents planning IT upgrades for this purpose, versus 55% in 2014. Here the shift from fixed maintenance schedules to optimized maintenance strategies is clear.

But airlines differ in planning needs. Carriers that outsource heavy maintenance will be interested in software that helps with line maintenance and turning aircraft at gates in 40 min., not doing C checks in five days.

The next most important upgrade goals are mobility, execution and handling supply chains, according to the Aviation Week/IATA survey. Nearly two-thirds of carriers surveyed want better IT support in these areas, up from 40-50% in 2014.

Bachan sees increasing interest in mobility for MRO systems and says there is a long way to go to achieve full mobility. He believes mobile devices must be able to work offline and that truly hands-free computing requires voice interaction with these devices. He says almost all airlines want supply-chain systems that allow them to minimize line replaceable unit stocks.

Improving document management is another major goal, just as it was last year. Here, there are several challenges for software. Messy paper documents may be front-end items such as maintenance manuals, illustrated parts catalogs or wiring manuals. General maintenance software is usually inadequate as OEMs move toward S1000D’s XML standards. Specialized software from companies such as Flatirons Solutions is usually needed.

On the back end, digitizing technical records is also important. Here, some vendors focus on managing records for lease handovers, while others manage digital records throughout asset life cycle. All of this can be done, but only by very specialized software, which is often used extensively across industries. Functionalities include optical character-recognition, intelligent character-recognition and other, constantly improving tools. The good news is that aircraft maintenance is not alone. Every major business wants to digitize and organize its records.

More than half of responding airlines in the survey want to move to e-signatures, about the same as last year. Bachan says e-signatures can be very efficient for internal airline validation. But e-signatures have not been recognized by all countries, which has limited their use. With time, this technology may gain wider acceptance by regulators.

More than half of survey respondents are working on Big Data analytics. Almost all, 92%, are actively trying to use their fleet data to improve health monitoring and predictive MRO, according to the Aviation Week/IATA survey (see chart, page MRO 14).

Lone notes that most Big Data analysis has so far been done by OEMs and OEM shops. “For this to progress to airlines will take a little time. We need to see more proven track records in both technology and associated processes,” he says.

Only one-quarter of respondents are worried specifically about the newest e-enabled jets. Even the most sophisticated airlines are still trying to figure out which data from these aircraft they can use and how to use it. “If they have to consume all the data before figuring that out, it will be a very long time,” Bachan says. He believes the key will be isolating and exploiting the most significant data first.

Other upgrades are important to a smaller subset of airlines. For example, tracking parts with RFID requires new software, as each component carries a readable history.

Control of software configuration may become more important as software upgrades accelerate. Finnair recently chose Flatirons’ eEnabled Software Management (eESM) to control software configuration on its new Airbus A350s. One reason for the choice was that eESM integrates well with AMOS, Finnair’s main maintenance-management software.

Shops Seek Even Tighter Resource Control

If airlines need to move toward software that optimizes maintenance economics, MRO shops have always been seeking that goal. Shop software must track and improve utilization of labor, materials and the supply chain, minimizing cost and maximizing profit. “It’s about people scheduling, making maintenance repetitious, exploiting experience and optimizing processes,” Bachan says. “For shops, the thin systems airlines use will not do. They need to move checks faster, do production scheduling, use bar codes and task cards and manage publications.”

MRO providers also must seek software that communicates with customers and manages customer relationships and billing. And they need financial and HR applications that airlines’ maintenance departments can leave to corporate ERP systems.

For all these purposes, MRO providers cannot afford to rely on legacy software, argues Martynas Grigalavicius, head of FL Technics’ aircraft maintenance base in Kaunas, Lithuania. “Shifting to more advanced MRO and ERP systems enables complete control of resources, planning resource distribution more thoroughly and saving man-hours and money,” he says. New aircraft technology is also forcing adoption of new IT tools, especially to exploit RFID and telemetry.

Grigalavicius says IT improvements need to be made as soon as possible. “Inadequate planning and inaccurate estimates of turnaround time costs hundreds of thousands of dollars in downtime in hangars,” he notes. But while improving IT, MROs should exploit even simpler IT solutions to better control their resources.

So FL Technics has developed its own applications to track the maintenance process in real time and provide precise data on worker-hours per aircraft, per day, per service and per mechanic. These applications help manage human resources and monitor process flows; for example, they detect when work stops due to missing parts or the need for customer authorization.

And software limits MRO-airline communication to online links between a shop engineer and airline supply manager, who are both notified automatically. Grigalavicius says this link saves days in approval time. “Knowing what is actually happening with a customer’s aircraft at an exact time and date, we can stick closer to, or even ahead of, planned [turnaround time], track every reason for a delay and provide transparency of work scopes,” he says.

The MRO provider also favors high-tech document and supply-chain management and has developed its own apps in these areas. It plans to use wearable technologies and smart devices to ease internal communication, data exchanges and access to technical documents.

Grigalavicius stresses that many IT improvements require collaboration among MROs, customers and other elements of the supply chain. “Online communication, automatic data exchange, synchronized supply-chain management, digitized documents and similar solutions won’t work if only the MRO supports them,” he says.

Group Director of Airframe Services James Barrington says the Haeco Group focuses IT efforts on mobility and becoming more paperless. Haeco wants to enable frontline mechanics and engineers to use mobile devices to access job assignments and electronic technical manuals, work on task cards, obtain electronic approvals, and perform other tasks. Barrington says this mobility drive will improve Haeco’s productivity. And it will use digital documents in place of printed ones, reducing the costs, economic and environmental, of paper documentation.

On another front, Haeco is concentrating on developing its business intelligence. To enhance decision support and staff productivity, it has implemented a management dashboard for material management. This dashboard assists operational analysis of inventory decisions and helps manage procurement. In 2016, Haeco will expand the management dashboard to other departments, such as airframe services.

Chris Fiddes, vice president for supply chain programs, says AAR will continue to invest in data analytics and predictive analytics. AAR is also introducing mobile applications in late in 2015 so that customers can respond to questions and make decisions in real time. Fiddes argues these investments will boost efficiency and effectiveness, yielding higher reliability, less downtime and lower total costs.

So look forward to faster IT modernization in both airline and independent shops in the next two years. More sophisticated software will be a key differentiator and may even determine survival. “MROs and airline MROs who don’t change fast enough may cease to exist,” Lone predicts. The SAKS consultant also expects some consolidation among MRO IT vendors and perhaps acquisition of these vendors by MROs or OEMs. 

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